Dilemma #2: Finding the Perfect Job

Getting a job in Thailand is more difficult than all the blogs, forums, and advertisements would have you believe. It’s not that jobs are hard to come by. Quite the contrary: there are quite a few. But one’s options are limited if one has standards. I am such a one.

When I left America, one of the ways I justified leaving my cushy Silicon Valley corporate job and taking an 80% pay cut was to tell myself I would be making a difference in my new country and profession. (There were other justifications, of course, but those will come in the next post.) So I began to envision classrooms full of enthusiastic Thai students with poor English and big dreams. I imagined myself being their inspiration to do anything their hearts set out to do, and to embrace the lingua franca of our time in order to realize those dreams.

Upon arriving, I found that it’s not so simple. Based on my findings so far, there are essentially four types of teaching opportunities here: 1) language schools, 2) Thai private schools, 3) Thai government schools, and 4) international schools. The language schools vary in terms of reputation, competence, and goodwill. Some are back-alley for-profit ventures, in it only for the money, while others have a high standard of excellence and care about people’s proficiency in English. Thai private schools also vary in their standard of achievement and approach to English learning (some are ‘bilingual schools’ and others feature expensive ‘English Programmes’). Thai government schools have a wide range of issues depending on the school, almost all of which are linked to either funding or the zeitgeist of Thai people in general. And international schools, although excellent in their standards of achievement, are usually only serving the richest percent.

Navigating these differences is harder than you might think. Making sure you get everything you want out of a job is even harder; you’ll have to sacrifice something, so you have decide what’s most important to you. If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll receive plenty of offers. By the time I finally made up my mind I had received 7 offers for employment, all with varying degrees of temptation. The biggest lesson I learned during this process was patience. Don’t take the first offer just because you have no other prospects. Another one will turn up sooner than you think.

This was my lesson with Shane English School. At the time, they were the only employer that had made me an offer, and they wanted a decision pronto. They wanted me trained in time to start teaching in 10 days, which meant they needed to start training in 3 days, which meant they needed a decision in 1 day. At the time, I had only Burapa English-Programme School of Thailand (B.E.S.T.) showing any alternative interest, and it wasn’t promising. They liked me but had no openings.

There were some things to like about Shane: good pay, small classes, job security. But there were some huge negatives: badly reviewed by disgruntled ex-employees, no holidays, no license in Thailand and therefore no work permit, hour-long commute, seeming incompetence with regards to teaching methodology. So I had many reservations about taking the job. But with no other prospects, and a tourist visa expiration fast approaching, I got impatient. I wasn’t willing to bite the bullet and turn down the offer in hopes of other prospects emerging.

So I sat skeptically through training, feeling increasingly uneasy with the Shane way. What bothered me most was Shane’s ideology about education. For them, it’s a business, and their clientele are only the richest among Thai people. Because of this, it wasn’t about necessarily developing English proficiency. It was about the students coming out of classes enthusiastic enough to make the parents happy, and proficient enough to make them proud. If Shane’s students learned to string together an English sentence that the parents didn’t know, or could sound out the name of the chain store Tesco Lotus using phonetics, that was a success. It was a bar too low for my standards.

So before and after training hours, I frantically plugged away at sending out more resumes and following up on anything that looked promising. Finally, Maryvit Pattaya called me.

The president of Maryvit was a Thai national who had grown up in the United States. In fact, whenever I talked to him, I essentially felt like I was talking to an American. He was fluent, and understood American culture intimately. His parents, however, were the traditional Thai owners. So it’s the traditional Thai way at Maryvit. That means that quantity is prioritized over quality. In other words, there seems to be a belief among many schools here in Thailand that the more time spent in school on a weekly or yearly basis, the better educated the child. It’s not about using the time efficiently, or hiring effective teachers. So the Maryvit schedule is 10-hour days Monday through Friday, and another 5 hours on Saturday with seldom holidays.

So why did I initially agree to this? Because of Maryvit’s philosophy about education. As a private school, they’re unique among other schools in their approach to English learning. Some schools feature expensive English Programmes that parents have to pay additional tuition to get their children into. Others are ‘bilingual schools’ in which there’s still a division between ordinary curriculum and English-directed curriculum, but these schools also cost a bit in tuition. Maryvit wants to incorporate English into it’s normal curriculum. All students are taking classes in English, and they’re all paying the same low tuition. It’s the most egalitarian system I know of in Thailand. For me, Maryvit was that opportunity to make a difference. I was eager to leave Shane and sleep better at night, even if it was only going to be 6 hours a night.

Upon starting at Maryvit, I realized how much need there was. I was the only Western teacher. The consequences of this was that the students had never had natural English modeled, so they were really bad at understanding and speaking, which made them really timid to use the English that they knew. Most of the English grammar classes were taught in Thai, so the students learned to use their native language as a crutch in learning. Even worse, most of the teachers were doing most of the talking, which makes little sense when learning a language involves the principle of practice-makes-perfect.

So I was excited about what I could do there. The students were all engaged and excited about their new American teacher. It didn’t take long for many of them to enthusiastically approach me with speaking assignments, or just to say hi and ask me questions about myself. They were all good, respectful, and charming kids. In fact, I’d take a classroom of Thai students over a classroom of American students any day.

But after a week at Maryvit, I started noticing some things. First, I had very little professional support. There was a teacher trainer–a Filipino-American with 22 years’ teaching experience in the United States. He was great. But his contract expired during the duration of my own contract. If he didn’t stay, there was little else other than peer support. And after a week, I wasn’t confident in that either. I started teaching some classes as part of my training. The teacher trainer was so excited about my lessons that he asked other teachers, some of them with nearly a decade of experience, to come to my classes. I was apparently doing something that nobody knew how to do: get the students using English in class. So was I ready to be the leader at Maryvit? Was I ready to be the professional support to others? As a novice teacher, absolutely not.

Second, I examined the schedules of the teachers I was shadowing. They had around 350 students each, some of them shared. When they called on students, they used student numbers because they couldn’t possibly remember their names. It felt like some dystopian-fascist society.

With insufficient support, a huge student load, long hours, and few holidays, it was only a matter of time before I burned out. Then how helpful would I be? How much of a difference would I really make in these students’ lives if I hated my job?

Then B.E.S.T. finally called. They were offering me 40-hour work weeks (8 hours a day Monday through Friday), nearly 3 months’ paid holiday, lower student loads, and a much more supportive environment where professional development is a high priority. The downside: they’re an English-Programme school, where only the affluent foreign parents send their kids. It’s not that these kids don’t deserve an education any less than the students of Maryvit. All kids deserve a quality education. It’s more the black-and-white impact I’d be leaving on their lives. Many of their parents are English, American, or Australian. English is spoken often at home. Their English is so proficient they actually have native-speaker dialects.

In taking the job at B.E.S.T., I had to accept a few things. First, educational impact isn’t as black and white as the color of a student’s skin, the language they speak, or the money their parents have. It’s so much more nuanced than that. It’s about my willingness to bring everything I have to the table, and inspire them to do the same. It’s about getting them to not only see the importance of my specialty subject, but the important of excellence in general. And that’s because while there is upward mobility, and education is every bit a catalyst to it, there’s also downward mobility, and a lack of education is its catalyst.

Second, I’m not superman. As much as I want to save Thai students from the inadequacies of their country’s education, to do so without experience is an arrogant exercise in futility. I may be successful for a time, but that will only inaugurate frustration and despair in the long run. I need to grow in my new profession under the guidance of experienced and compassionate colleagues and mentors before I can ever hope to help the most needy. In short, I need to take care of myself before I can take care of others.

Finally, I learned not to be so pompous. Classism is a two-way street. One can just as easily alienate others by taking the moral ‘high-ground’ as one can by being morally careless. In an effort to be a man of the people, I have intellectually insulted the value of a group of kids who equally deserve a dedicated and enthusiastic teacher.

As I finish this (unedited) post, I prepare for a solid night’s sleep as a prequel to my first day in my new job at B.E.S.T. I hope I can be the best I can be for every student I ever have, starting with the students here.

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